Indifference Caused Developmentally Disabled Man's Death, Lawsuit Says

Although Tomas Beauford was 24 at the time of his death, he suffered from intellectual and developmental disabilities that caused him to function on the level of a six-year-old — a fact that makes the tragedy that befell him even more heartbreaking.

Beauford died from a seizure while in custody at the Mesa County Detention Center, and according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of his family (see it below), this episode was easily preventable.

Had a device implanted in Beauford's chest been deployed properly, the seizure almost certainly wouldn't have been fatal. But David Lane, the attorney who filed the suit, says the magnetic bracelet that triggered this piece of medical technology had been taken away from Beauford upon admittance to the facility because "they decided it was jewelry and you're not allowed to have property in the jail."

The confiscation of the item is even more dubious, in Lane's view, since Beauford had been confined in the detention center before and was previously allowed to wear the bracelet due to his condition.

The plaintiffs named in the suit include Mesa County and a number of individuals, as well as Correct Care Solutions, a private contractor that provides medical services for the facility. Correct Care Solutions also handled health care for Jefferson County jail when Jennifer Lobato died of opioid withdrawal in March 2015. Lane filed suit on behalf of Lobato's family, and last month, Jeffco paid a $2.5 million settlement. The case against Correct Care Solutions in regard to Lobato is still pending.

Here's how Lane tells Beauford's story.

"Tomas was in a group home for severely developmentally disabled people in Grand Junction," he says. "But the problem is, he was a child in the body of an adult, and when he'd get upset and have a tantrum, he wasn't a six-year-old doing it. He was a large man. So police would get called out from time to time — and because our wonderful criminal-justice system is one size fits all, he'd be taken to jail and be treated like any other inmate."

That's what happened on April 14, 2014 — and his incarceration immediately put him in danger. Beauford took a slew of medications for his disabilities, including the seizures: lithium carbonate, Olanzapine, Oxcarbazepine, potassium chloride, Propranolol, Benztropine, clonazepam and Divalproex. But "like a kid, he didn't always want to take his meds — and because the jail is filled up with untrained people, they let him make his own choices about whether to take them or not, even though they knew he was developmentally disabled," Lane allows.

Without the medication, Beauford began to have seizures. To address them, he had been taught how to boost his implanted Vagus Nerve Stimulator, known in the medical field as a VNS. As described in the complaint, the VNS is "programmed to cycle on and off, giving stimulation at regular intervals during the day to the Vagus nerve," a part of the automatic nervous system that controls involuntary bodily functions such as the heart rate. At times when a seizure is about to take place, individuals receive a warning called an aura — and when that happens, they know to hold the bracelet to their chest. By doing so, a special magnet in the bracelet delivers a de facto shock that typically prevents the seizure from taking place or dramatically reduces its intensity or duration.

Without the bracelet, Beauford had "several seizures," Lane notes. "He'd have them and then he'd come out of them — and the personnel at the jail didn't do anything about them. They never took him to medical. Then, finally, he had a grand mal seizure, and it killed him" on April 16 of that year.

Attempts to settle the case without filing a lawsuit were unsuccessful, says Lane, who feels that "the bureaucratic mind works in mysterious ways." But despite the evidence he's amassed to suggest that Beauford's care was woefully subpar, he doesn't see the matter as a slam dunk, partly because of the burden of proof required when it comes to liability for jail deaths.

"Part of the problem can be laid at the doorstep of a bunch of Nixon-appointed Supreme Court justices," Lane maintains — a reference to the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble. "If your average citizen is being malpracticed upon by a medical provider, the standard for a lawsuit is mere negligence. But for inmates, you have to show more than that. You have to show deliberate indifference, which is a difficult standard; you have to show they were aware of a serious medical need and did absolutely nothing about it."

As a result, Lane goes on, medical providers at jails and prisons "can commit negligent malpractice all day long, and their defense, thanks to the Supreme Court, is, 'We're just a bunch of fuckups, but we're not malicious fuckups.' But we have to prove deliberate indifference."

Nonetheless, Lane is confident he'll be able to come through for Beauford's grief-stricken mother, Tiffany Marsh, and the rest of his loved ones. He also sees the events as part of a systemic flaw — the same one that led to Lobato's death.

"This is an example of privatization of health care in jails," he argues. "Health care in jails is already abysmal, and privatization has caused it to decline even further. These health-care companies are only concerned about bottom-line dollars. If they start providing top-level medical care, it costs too much and they're afraid they'll lose their contracts. So instead, Tomas Beauford loses his life."

Here's the lawsuit.

Estate of Tomas Beauford v. Mesa County, Colorado, et. al.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts